Delhi must get Dhaka back in its embrace

Parul Chandra | Updated on March 25, 2021

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina Sandeep Saxena   -  The Hindu

Fairweather friend | A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina Bloomberg   -  Bloomberg

The neighbour has delivered on most of India’s demands. It’s time for Delhi to walk the talk

It was on a cold January afternoon this year when Bangladesh’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs Md. Shariar Alam decided to speak his mind about the need to resolve the “pending issues” between Dhaka and New Delhi to an Indian audience during a webinar organised by an Indian think-tank.

He cited a few of those issues — Bangladesh’s long wait to get a share of the Teesta waters, the trade imbalance in India’s favour, the Rohingya refugees issue on which Dhaka feels New Delhi needs to weigh in more with Myanmar as well as the international community to ensure their repatriation, and the slow progress on Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative on Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). While there was no direct criticism of India by Alam, there were enough hints about Dhaka’s growing impatience on certain matters. And not without reason. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, now in her third consecutive term, has gone out of her way to deliver on India’s demands despite the backlash she has faced from the Opposition or anti-India elements in her country.

A tight-rope walk

Sheikh Hasina has adroitly walked the tight-rope between domestic pressures and expectations in her dealings with India while ensuring the bilateral relationship does not suffer. Now in her 14th consecutive year as PM, New Delhi-Dhaka ties have certainly been robust.

So much so that Dhaka has even chosen to, at least publicly, accept New Delhi’s contention that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 and the National Citizens Register (NRC) are India’s internal matters and won’t impact Bangladesh. After initially showing its displeasure by cancelling several ministerial visits to India, the Bangladesh government has chosen to instead take up this issue behind closed doors.

With Bangladesh proving to be a steadfast friend, it’s about time India, as the bigger neighbour and with larger resources at its command, walked the extra mile to live up to its motto of ‘Neighbourhood First’. While the big deliverables like the Teesta pact may not be immediately possible owing to India’s domestic politics, there are certainly other niggling issues on which New Delhi can adopt a more flexible approach.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Bangladesh to participate in ‘Mujib Borsho’ — marking the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 50 years of Bangladesh’s liberation in which India played a decisive role, and 50 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries — would be a good opportunity for New Delhi to listen in to Dhaka’s concerns at the highest level.

The visit will undoubtedly be high on atmospherics, with a mix of nostalgia, sentiment and history thrown in. However, symbolism apart India needs to ensure that it is willing to deal with Bangladesh’s concerns. Especially when it’s well aware that China is ever willing to step in wherever India cedes space in its neighbourhood. Bangladesh, incidentally, is already a part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Trade matters

The trade deficit, heavily skewed in India’s favour, is a matter that needs to be addressed with urgency. In FY 2018-19, Indian exports to Bangladesh stood at $9.21 billion, while it imported goods worth $1.04 billion from its neighbour. Dhaka has been for long seeking fewer tariff barriers on the goods it seeks to export to India.

Bangladeshi businessmen, especially in the garment industry, want easy and tariff-free access to the Indian market. But this hasn’t happened so far. Dhaka has also been seeking the withdrawal of anti-dumping duties on its jute exports to India — it’s a matter being discussed at the secretary-level on both sides. An early resolution to this issue should help both countries.

For a country poised to exit from the LDC (least developed category) in 2026, Bangladesh is also looking to have free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India is crucial for Bangladesh, and New Delhi will keep this in mind during the negotiations.

India also needs to put its weight behind the early operationalisation of the long-delayed Motor Vehicle Agreement under the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) initiative to help in the easy movement of people and goods.

While the current momentum in India-Bangladesh connectivity via roads, railways, ports and riverine routes is allowing the Indian mainland connectivity to its North-East States, the big question is what does India’s neighbour gain from this? India needs to address this question too and ensure Bangladesh and its economy too reaps the benefits of these connectivity projects.

There is also a sense in Bangladesh that India needs to acknowledge more overtly the cooperation it has extended to check North-East insurgent activities on its soil, which has helped bring in a measure of peace and stability to the region and, in turn, helped India’s connectivity efforts.

India has undoubtedly stepped up its outreach to Dhaka, be it in terms of infrastructure building, connectivity projects, making available Lines of Credit (LoC), cooperation in the energy domain, stepped up defence and security cooperation and the like. India was also swift to respond to Bangladesh’s request for the Covid-19 vaccine, dispatching an initial consignment of two million doses of the vaccine to Bangladesh by way of grant assistance.

Unlike India’s other close neighbours, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives that have given New Delhi enough cause for anxiety in recent years, Bangladesh has remained a close friend but for the occasional wrinkles. Now Delhi needs to seize the moment, especially to stem Chinese strategic inroads into Bangladesh.

The writer is a New Delhi-based independent journalist.

Published on March 25, 2021

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